When is café used and when is coffee shop used? Are there any differences? Which is more widespread?

  • Worth taking a look at baristaexchange.com/forum/topics/difference-between-coffee
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 23:54
  • when it comes to food or drink American majority need couple of generations yet to catch-up with French.
    – user162031
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 8:35
  • In most of the US they mean essentially the same thing. There are no doubt regional variations in the "shadings" of the terms, but they're not something you can count on nationwide, and they aren't strong enough to cause a misunderstanding in most cases.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 13:33

4 Answers 4


Café is a commonly used loan-word in English. Being French it has a connotation of being either classy or pretentious, depending on your point of view. Coffee shop has no similar connotations.

  • 2
    Not to mention going to Amsterdam, coffee is not what you order first in a coffee shop :)
    – mplungjan
    Commented May 6, 2013 at 12:13
  • 2
    I'd say that café has lost any connotation of pretentiousness (or classiness) in British English, especially in the once-pretentious but now 'common'- (almost vulgar-) sounding cafe pronounced to rhyme with safe. Commented May 6, 2013 at 17:24
  • There are probably lots of regional differences on this one. In some places people will say "Coffee Shop" when they mean Central Perk whereas in others people will mean a diner like the one on Seinfeld. I agree with Edwin that in British (and Canadian) English, café is common enough that a class distinction is no longer very strong. Witness: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/McCaf%C3%A9
    – Joel Brown
    Commented May 6, 2013 at 20:11
  • @EdwinAshworth can you point me to an instance (or documentation thereof) of cafe pronounced so as to rhyme with safe? So as to rhyme with gaff, I'm familiar with that: it refers more to a greasy spoon, a pointedly English working class institution (think formica tables, mugs of tea, unmarked ketchup and brown sauce bottles, etc) — but I've never heard of the pronunciation you mention.
    – Barney
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 13:00
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    @Barney, LPD-3 (Wells 2008) says the following "sometimes also (but in RP only facetiously) kæf, keɪf."
    – Alex B.
    Commented Jun 2, 2013 at 23:33

From personal experience in the United States, a café serves meals, while a coffee shop usually just sells snacks (muffins, scones, shortbread). This is not strictly the case, and both usually serve coffee.

Side note; I would almost argue that a coffee shop carries the pretentious connotation more than a café, since coffee shops are where people usually go to study, write, or work on a laptop and time appears more important.

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    'Coffee Shop' carries the opposite connotation in Australia (and perhaps UK). It's uncommonly used these days, and would refer to a low quality chain store in a shopping centre (mall). A hipster would definitely not appear in one of these sterile places with their invariably poor quality coffee. In fact, hipsters here would not even use the word 'cafe' for a specialised shop that sells good quality coffee - it sounds like 'cafeteria' which is an old-fashioned word serving low-quality food eg. 'staff cafeteria'. Having said all this, I don't know what you call a good quality cafe anymore!
    – Pete855217
    Commented Jul 1, 2014 at 14:05
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    I agree with the definition for United States. For most of Europe (UK included) however, its the exact opposite. A cafe there usually sells mainly coffee and tea and some light snacks just like Garrys says. In some places, they will also sell light food such as sandwiches (light sandwiches, not the american type) and sometimes also (light) sallads. In California, my personal experience tells me a cafe is usually a small fancy restaurant serving fancy elaborate dishes, and usually have very good wines.
    – Andy
    Commented Aug 27, 2014 at 19:02

COCA has 1383 instances of coffee shop; a search for café is actually converted into a search for caf, giving 2069 hits of which most appear from context to be café, although not even all of those are in the sense of cafeteria — e.g. some are café con leche. Cafe without the accent has 7376 hits, and cafeteria in full has 2780. So overall, coffee shop appears to be outnumbered on the order of 10 to 1.

I can't comment on American connotations of café vs coffee shop, but one of the examples caught my eye:

Where: The Midnight Rooster, a gritty little coffee shop and cafe in Hartsville, South Carolina

This could be a merism or it could indicate that the author considers those to be two halves of a single business.

(Also, although another answer claims that café has a connotation of being either classy or pretentious, the presence in COCA of a few references to a truck stop café suggests that this connotation is not universal).


Coffee shop in California typically means a small restaurant with 'counter-service' (you can sit at a counter to eat) and usually booths (as opposed to tables), whereas cafe means small restaurant with tables and, more recently, a business selling coffee and snacks only (e.g. Starbucks).

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